Owen takes strain for Liverpool
THE STRAIN of keeping up with Manchester United and Arsenal looked to be telling on Liverpool yesterday as they plodded back to the top of the Premiership with a laboured victory that, nonetheless, sent poor Derby down.
In a leaden-footed response to United's commanding lunchtime victory at Chelsea, the Merseysiders were indebted again to Michael Owen for the two flashes of inspiration that brought them a winning margin.
With five successive Premiership defeats behind them and only two victories at this ground since 1937, Derby hardly needed any further reminder of how high the odds were stacked in Liverpool's favour. They got it, though, the presentation of the European Footballer of the Year trophy to Owen before the kick-off underlining the quality of the players they were facing.
There was no Fabrizio Ravanelli to come to the rescue, either. Derby's seemingly disaffected Italian striker, said to be suffering from a foot injury, was not even in attendance. So Derby fielded the same side who had lost 3-2 at home to Newcastle a week earlier after leading 2-0. Liverpool made two changes, however, Danny Murphy and Vladimir Smicer returning at the expense of Abel Xavier and Jari Litmanen.
Although Malcolm Christie was desperately close to reaching an inviting centre from Lee Morris as Derby counter-attacked at speed, Liverpool were soon at their opponents' throats. Andy Oakes, the Derby goalkeeper, had already made one marvellous save, diving to turn away John Arne Riise's fierce header from a Smicer corner, when the Merseysiders took the lead in the 16th minute.
Almost inevitably, it was Owen who scored the goal, though not quite as quickly or spectacularly as the one he had got here as England captain a few days earlier. The little striker owed the chance to Dietmar Hamann and Smicer, who smuggled the ball through the middle for him to wriggle and stumble his way past challenges by Danny Higginbotham and Warren Barton before poking the ball high past Oakes's left shoulder.
Other than that, there was not a lot to report in a desperately poor first half. Nicolas Anelka did put the ball in the net, but was ruled offside for the umpteenth time. On one of the rare occasions the French striker managed to avoid a linesman's flag, he hit the ball hard and low only to see Oakes save.
There was little improvement in the standard of play in the second half, although Liverpool did make openings more regularly. Three of them fell to Anelka, who sent one over the bar, one into the side-netting and the other tamely into Oakes's hands as he was tackled by Barton. Owen, too, was wasteful. Put clear by Anelka's flick-on from a Jerzy Dudek clearance, the Liverpool striker drove the ball over the bar.
As the half wore on, Liverpool became so dominant that they were guilty of over-elaboration. A prime example was the moment Steven Gerrard, unmarked at the far post, chose to square the ball across the face of goal instead of taking the easier option and shooting. Gerrard was lucky to get the ball back when it rebounded off a defender's leg, but when the midfielder did shoot at last, Oakes made another good reflex save.
As long as the score remained at 1-0, however, Liverpool were always in danger of being caught. It nearly happened six minutes from the end, too. When Dudek, normally so reliable, fumbled a long-range shot by Paul Boertien, he had to scramble to block a follow-up shot from Christie. Even then, Dudek could not hold the ball, but it hit Riise as the full-back was running towards his own goal and bounced back into his goalkeeper's hands.
Strangely enough, Owen's finishing had become wilder and wilder before he put the result beyond doubt in the last minute of normal time. Having lashed a couple of chances wide, Owen redeemed himself by sprinting clear on to a long forward pass from Emile Heskey, substituting for Anelka, rounded the advancing Oakes and slotted the ball home from a narrowing angle.
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